§ 11 am
§ Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)
The purpose of my speech is not to detract from the Second Reading on 28 November of the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill to be presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster): quite the opposite.
I first began to think about the problems of sport hunting when I was taken by an Anglia Television crew to a fox hunt in Essex last Christmas. I found the whole day rather boring; there was not a fox in sight. The day came and went without me understanding why people commit themselves to this activity. The only sad event that occurred was a young rider falling off her horse, and that was about it. I was subjected to many of the arguments on the need for hunting. We were all courteously treated and there was no attempt to restrict our movements.
I determined to investigate this issue from a certain angle. My profession has taught me that scientific experimentation and analysis, as well as adding new dimensions to complex matters, can chase away prejudice, so it was to the scientific facts that I turned. My aim today is to ensure that recent scientific studies are discussed and that we use good science to cut through the emotion and nonsense that often surrounds this issue.
Research on sport hunting, which is often undertaken in difficult circumstances, has allowed organisations to make informed decisions on sport hunting, such as to ban it on their land as the National Trust announced earlier this year. That is truly an example of facts promoting political action.
Research has also made it possible to answer questions on the biological effects of hunting; specifically to question the contention that there is a dire need to restrict animal populations by this or any other method. Most hunters agree that hunting with hounds has little effect on hare, deer or fox numbers. I have always found it surprising that some animals are seen as pests or vermin, whereas othersmdash;or even sometimes the same animals—evoke human emotion, concern and passion. I note the recent study by the university of Bristol that was quoted in yesterday's The Guardian, which questions whether the fox is a pest.
Whether in biotechnology, with its immense potential for job and product creation, or in the field that encompasses ethology, biodiversity, management and conservation of wildlife, multifactorial components interact in complex ways that are often difficult to unravel and quantify. There is no common currency—a topical subject this week—with which to equate units of suffering, units of hedgerow, units of rural employment, units of cultural heritage and units of rural infrastructure. Hon. Members will instantly recognise those as major factors referred to in debates on hunting.
It is important to recognise that even after the science is applied and assessed, it is not the role of the scientist exclusively to apply ethical judgments. That is by no means to concede or imply that scientists are dispassionate, cold people—quite the opposite in my experience—who should not participate in such ethical debates and thereby fashion political judgment.
A wider debate is required, whether it is to do with poor old Dolly the sheep or with sport hunting. I hope that the matter is resolved democratically later this year 838 through the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill. Ultimately, a judgment must emerge from the whole equation and the scientific impact is essential if that is to happen. What scientific evidence has emerged, what is needed and how does it help us to judge the impact of hunting on the various factors at issue?
Hunting as a form of exploitation of wildlife may relate to conservation issues. Trophy hunting of big cats or the ivory harvest of elephants may affect global diversity, national economics and the recreational and employment profiles of a large segment of many societies. Other hunting issues may seem parochial in comparison but still involve a complex interplay between similar factors.
Scientific methodology, technique and analysis can be applied to the issues involved in our interaction with other natural creatures, be they foxes, hounds, hares, deer or mink. The anti-science lobby, which is fairly prevalent in this country, tells us that any scientific conclusion is merely common sense or that scientists never agree so their results should be disregarded and we should not bother about any of the evidence that is presented. That fails to recognise the immense socio-economic advances that have accrued since the discovery of DNA, electrons and the second law of thermodynamics. Such discoveries not only address issues of wealth creation, but can ensure an improvement in the quality of life and in our understanding of the environment. The intellectual and financial wealth created by such discoveries is incontestable and it ill behoves any Minister to deny the value of research.
How can science resolve some of the current problems in sport hunting? First, it can break down the prevalent mythology. A recent publication from the university of Durham said:The mink's reputation as a pest lends considerable support to those who now hunt it with hounds along Britain's rivers. Conservationists fear, however, that the continuation of this activity, albeit directed towards a different species, seriously disturbs any otters which remain in the areas around.So the simple branding of an organism as a pest fails to examine the whole ecosphere and the effects on other organisms in that environment.
Like Professor Bateson's report on stag hunting for the National Trust, scientific research has reinforced what the anti-hunt lobby had suspected all along: that hunting deer with hounds leads to unacceptable cruelty and suffering. Only last week, DNA profiling or fingerprinting resulted in four men being convicted of badger digging offences. Science showed its worth in that area and forensic diagnosis is very much part of our way of life in other activities. We cannot cherry-pick the science just to get our beliefs across: we must consider the whole dimension.
We can address issues of cruelty and pain scientifically. Such arguments are a prominent feature of the hunting debate. Pain or biotechnical trauma has been measured in the hunting of red deer. The National Trust recently commissioned a significant report by Professor Patrick Bateson and Elizabeth Bradshaw of King's college Cambridge, who were studying the effect of hunting on red deer in Exmoor and the Quantocks.
The study involved taking blood samples from deer that had been chased by hounds and then shot. The deer had run an average of 20 km over three hours. The research showed clearly that cortisol levels—it is acknowledged across the scientific compass that this hormone is released 839 under stress—blood sugar and lactate levels rose as oxygen levels fell due to overworked muscles. Red blood cells broke down and released haemoglobin, and muscle-based enzymes leaked into the blood.
Cortisol levels were 10 times higher in deer chased by hounds than in animals shot by stalkers. Blood lactate levels reached peak levels after 5 km of chase, then dropped as lactate was used to fuel muscular activity. The consequence was that after 15 km to 30 km, energy stores in the deer were completely depleted. That was described by many scientists as an extraordinary and unexpected finding. Another incidental observation was that blood plasma in the deer contained haemoglobin within a few kilometres of the start of the chase.
We must identify and calibrate factors that are amenable to scientific analysis for each situation. We are unlikely to reach ethical agreements from this evidence alone, but it allows us to quantify and assess stress levels and relate that to cruelty claims.
As we expect in science, several attempts have been made to discredit Bateson's work, but it has been peer reviewed and stood the test of conference scrutiny. Therefore, it can truly be described as pioneering, illustrative and conclusive at this stage.
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the scientific way in which he is dealing with the issue. I do not claim to be a scientist, but it strikes me that the Bateson report is based entirely on the physical aspect of stress that he has just described so accurately. Does anything in the report suggest that that physical stress manifests itself as mental distress? It seems to me, as a layman, that that is the key aspect of an animal's pain.
§ Dr. Gibson
It is difficult to answer that question without the evidence provided by measurements involving brain cells and how they function, but I note in today's papers claims that cortisone levels relate to malfunctioning of the brain. Although Bateson did not carry out such measurements, I think that most scientists and medics would look for behavioural effects and effects on the brains of the deer. Certainly there are muscular effects, in that the deer become exhausted when running.
When reading the vast body of literature about hunting—we must admit that there is a sporting element in all such activity, whether it be fox hunting, hare coursing or red deer hunting—I have been struck by the quasi-scientific propaganda and dogma associated with the issues and by the nebulous phrases that are employed. Mythology and perceptions abound. Scientific investigations can cut through all that and provide qualitative and quantitative data, thereby giving a basis for political decision making.
We must get rid of our anthropomorphic attitude to animals. We have consciences and know right from wrong; animals do not. It is ludicrous to describe the fox—as some hunters have—as a cruel killer that kills for fun. Such language muddies the arguments. The notion that the kill is quick, lasting a matter of seconds, does not always stand up to scrutiny. Moreover, fox and deer hunts can involve chases lasting hours.
What other research has been conducted and what questions have been asked? Some questions relate to the organisation, activity patterns and modus operandi of 840 hunting. Asking and investigating such questions involves assessing the scale of hunting and its role in rural socio-economic infrastructures. Some interesting answers are contained in in-depth studies of fox hunting by Doctors MacDonald and Johnstone of Oxford university, which are widely renowned. Among their many conclusions was the finding that the number of participants did not vary significantly from one region to another. About 80 people would participate in a typical hunt. Another finding was that the area covered by the hunt varied from larger areas in the south and midlands to smaller areas in the north and Wales. Cub hunting occurred on an average of 25 days per season and hunting proper on an average of 70.
The researchers went on to ask what role hunting played in the population dynamics of any species—in this instance the fox—what impact it had on countryside management; what and who were the interest groups; how they viewed the hunted and how they dealt with scientific factors when they emerged. To assess the population dynamics, mortality and movement of foxes and to establish the size of the populations and the different habitats, the researchers collected figures that showed the national average annual rate of fox kills by hunts for the past three decades. A slight upward trend emerged in the more recent data, especially in the south.
Consistent differences were recorded in the number of foxes found by hunts in different habitats: for example, it was claimed that there were more in hilly landscapes. Most important, thorough analysis of fox mortality using various methods showed, in summary, how little was due to the hunts. MacDonald's seminal work concludes:As a method of protecting game birds, arguably the main motive for fox control, fox hunting is not sufficient. It seems similarly unlikely to offer protection for lambs.It also states thatoutside perhaps the context of upland sheep farming areas, fox hunting should be thought to be more of a sport than as a method of fox control.MacDonald's work has been published and internationally acknowledged.
A more recent biological study from the university of Bristol concludes:Foxes do not warrant their reputation as major pests of agriculture.Losses of lambs, piglets and poultry are insignificant relative to other causes of deaths. Greater improvements in lamb survival can be made by improving husbandry rather than by fox control.I shall now deal with the impact of sport hunting on the countryside. A recent letter in the Eastern Daily Press highlighted a view in Norfolk that might have been justified until recently, but will not necessarily last for, ever. The author wrote:My late father came to this farm in 1944. On 250 acres there are today 12 arable fields, 10 small pasture fields, 3 woods, 11 spinneys, 4 ponds and a large number of hedges, banks and ditches".The author went on to say that, had her father not been a hunting and shooting enthusiast, he would have removed them in the 1950s, when farmers were offered incentives to increase the productivity of their land. She felt that, without country sports, there would be seven ordinary arable fields, tiny areas of marsh and a few roadside banks.
Whether country sports will continue to be a major factor in countryside conservation remains to be seen. As MacDonald says, in the early 1980s reports from 841 fox-hunting farmers suggested that they were more inclined than others to retain hedgerows, but he goes on to say that hunting is not the only plausible motive for fostering hedgerows. In fact, he sees it as being destined to occupy a descending rank in the hierarchy of factors and argument currently fostering conservation.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the comments of none other than Dr. David Bellamy? He has said:While we have hunting, shooting and fishing interests in this country, we will have better landscape management. Without these interests, Britain would become a prairie landscape.Does the hon. Gentleman accept those comments?
§ Dr. Gibson
David Bellamy has not done the work that MacDonald has done, but that is not to say that he might not prove to be right in the long term. As I admitted earlier, scientists tend to argue, but I think that at present most people would go along with MacDonald's assessment.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
Scientists may indeed argue, but there can be no argument with farmers in my constituency who have told me that they are putting hedges in and preserving them because they enjoy the rural sports, specifically hunting, that those hedges enhance. Scientists may argue, but I can promise that in Leicestershire those hedges are there because people want to jump them—and the same applies to coverts.
§ Dr. Gibson
I would have said exactly the opposite, and I would have guessed that the hon. Gentleman would too. There is clearly argument among farmers. That is why I think that conservation issues will be based on factors other than hunting.
MacDonald made clear points about conservation issues. Issues of cruelty and the attendant moral questions are difficult to measure, but are of concern to many people. Bateson has attempted to quantify them. Balancing pain against benefits has now become a major issue and degrees of suffering may become quantifiable in different animals as scientific research and methodology develop.
At the end of the scientific analyses, it can be said that we are now in a position to talk about pain threshold measurements and stress levels in animals. From population studies, we can assess the effect of hunting, number distribution and the structure of the population. The debate has now moved to issues of morality and recreation and away from the classic issues of tradition and employment.
§ Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)
Has Professor Bateson done any work comparing the cruelty involved when a fox dies a natural death—often from starvation or disease—with the pain that it might suffer from a hunt?
§ Dr. Gibson
He has not done any work on that, but he has asked how such effects should be measured. Foxes do die naturally and it might be interesting to make the comparison. No one is saying that all the research that could be done has been done.
Because of the scientific movements and discoveries that have been made, many aspects of hunting could disappear. The sport might even be conducted without the 842 involvement of a live animal. There is a thought. Other viable substitutes have been suggested. All that it would take is zeal and ingenuity in the consideration of sporting aspects. As has been said elsewhere, as we head towards the millennium, is it not time to think the unthinkable?
I have attempted to expose and measure factors that inform and help the making of a judgment about hunting. As different people put different values on each relevant factor, and as the arguments of population control and farmland conservation seem to be, or will become, independent of hunting, at least in the fox hunting debate, the argument returns to the moral propriety of recreation when suffering is involved against tradition and employment.
The role of good science should not be underestimated and we have highlighted some areas that might be taken up. With it, we can reconsider the traditional arguments to justify sport hunting, but I want to conclude on a positive note: the scientific evidence points us absolutely in the direction of reducing the chasing of animals for sport and of supporting the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester to end hunting with hounds, which is to be discussed in November.
§ Mr. Christopher Fraser (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate because of the importance of hunting in my constituency. It is important for two reasons: environmental conservation and employment. This debate is about not sport, but the rural economy. Many of the people who support a ban on hunting, particularly Labour Members, live, work and represent urban constituencies and do not understand countryside issues. Urban attitudes often conflict with rural traditions. I invite all hon. Members who represent urban seats to come to the countryside to see what is being done by way of rural conservation and how people earn their living.
What would be the consequence of a ban on hunting being approved by the House? A survey carried out by the Campaign for Hunting in 1996 reported the vital role that hunts play in the British countryside by maintaining walls, hedges and woodlands. For example, hunts are responsible for the management of more than 15,000 acres of woodland for wildlife. Recently, the New Scientist concluded thatfox hunting has helped shape the British landscape. Areas where it is common often have more hedgerows and thickets which benefit other wildlife beside the fox. These would disappear if hunting were banned.In June, the National Farmers Union council issued a statement noting that it wouldoppose any change in the law which would result in any reduction in the range of methods currently available to control agricultural pests effectively. This would include the use of dogs to control foxes.Going back as far as 1993, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food noted thatfoxes can cause serious problems for individual farmers, and the Ministry therefore considers that foxes do need to be controlled to minimise lamb losses. Where control is necessary, farmers should be free to carry this out using effective and humane methods, and it is useful to be able to employ a range of techniques.It is not an issue simply of fox hunting. That is the hook to hang the issue of the countryside on. There may be a case to ensure that hunts conform to modern welfare 843 standards and for the establishment of a supervisory body, but if we consider the economic facts, any change in field sports does not stack up.
There are 385 registered packs of hounds, 228,000 participants, hunting or following, and 15,300 people are employed by hunts or in related trades. The total associated expenditure for the pastime is £176 million a year; 400,000 farm animal carcases are disposed of by hunt kennel staff to feed hounds, either at no cost or at a much reduced rate; and 5,700 hectares of woodland are managed by hunts.
If there were changes in field sports and, in particular, if hunting were banned, we could expect nearly 9,000 people to lose their jobs. A total of £120 million of turnover in associated trades would disappear and 400,000 farm animal carcases would have to be disposed of at farmers' or taxpayers' expense. The 5,700 hectares of woodland would have to be managed differently or from another purse. In such a rural economy, no changes are viable.
If I could be persuaded that any future legislation to ban hunting would not cost jobs in my constituency and that we could protect and conserve the countryside better, I would examine it carefully. Nationally, 15,000 people are directly employed in hunts and in related trades. If field sports were banned, riding and livery stables, saddlers and farriers would have little work in winter.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that only 9 per cent. of horses are used in hunting? My wife has had a horse for about 25 years and I have yet to meet a poor farrier.
§ Mr. Fraser
I will come on to the percentage and who hunts later. I hear the point.
Feed merchants, outfitters and vets would also be badly affected.
Where would it end? The issue of country sports comes down to protecting jobs and rural communities, who rely on those pastimes for their income. My concern must be for people who live and work in my constituency. I do not hunt, but I know and represent many people who do. Hunting is not an elitist sport. People involved with country sports come from all walks of life.
In Dorset, many local stables and livery stables depend on hunting, as do saddlers, horse feed suppliers and horsebox engineers, particularly in the winter months. Many of them were among the 500 people from the South Dorset hunt area who went to the Hyde park countryside rally, which was attended by 120,000 people—the biggest demonstration in London for generations. They went because they felt that their livelihoods were at risk and to show their support for country sports.
Three hunts—the South Dorset Foxhounds, the Purbeck Beagles and the Ytene Mink Hounds—hunt in my constituency. Two of their masters live in my constituency. On Monday, the South Dorset hunt was on Rempstone heath, near Corfe castle, and supporters included pensioners and children.
None of those hunts could operate without the permission of local farmers. Indeed, most of the subscribers to the South Dorset hunt are farmers, their 844 wives and children. They look to the hunt to control and disperse foxes. Any future legislation to ban field sport would criminalise those decent, law-abiding people. In years to come, would that prove to be the thin end of the wedge? Will Bills be introduced that criminalise fishermen and people who shoot?
It is also an issue of civil liberties. A ban on hunting would be an infringement of people's freedom to choose how they live their lives. In a civilised society, tolerance is shown to minorities. We accept that we must listen to and respect views that we do not necessarily personally agree with. People live and work in the countryside and they are now a minority. Parliament has a responsibility to protect the rights of such minorities.
I do not want conflict between the town and the country or even a divided nation, but people who favour a ban on hunting probably do not appreciate that it would not save a single life of a quarry species. Farmers would use other methods to control foxes. They would shoot, snare or trap them. Hunting is, however, the only selective method of controlling pest species. It promotes a healthy population by removing old, sick and injured animals.
Other types of hunting, particularly drag hunting, are not a suitable alternative. The Masters of Draghounds Association has endorsed that view. Drag hunting provides no service to farmers in terms of managing the fox population and enhancing wildlife habitats, hedges and walls. It would not safeguard jobs.
The impact of sport hunting and the proposed legislation on banning hunting, if passed, would have a profound effect on countryside conservation and, above all, on employment in the countryside. We must consider carefully any proposed legislation that comes before the House. If it threatens employment and people's livelihoods, it must be resisted.
People who seek a ban on hunting do the countryside a great disservice. They seek to hang the future and stability of rural life on one issue: hunting. They must not prevail.
§ Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) for his measured speech, which relied on science rather than prejudice. That is a welcome change from some of the arguments that we have heard in the hunting debate. I say to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) that it is a grave mistake to assume that Labour Members are ignorant urbanites. I am pleased to say that many Labour Members represent rural communities—one could hardly describe Forest of Dean as urban.
§ Mr. Fraser
I did not say that. I said that those who live and work in and represent urban constituencies should come to the countryside to see how it is worked and managed and how people there earn their livelihoods. What I said does not detract from the fact that some people are ignorant of that.
§ Mr. Salter
Likewise, it does not detract from the fact that people will trot out any argument to justify their prejudice. I repeat that it would be a grave mistake to assume that Labour Members are ignorant urbanites who 845 have no understanding of how the countryside works; my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) does not exactly represent an urban constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) and I are keen anglers; we have spent many years fishing in the countryside and understand country sports. The argument is trotted out that this is the thin end of the wedge, but how is it that recent polls by the Angler's Mail and the Angling Times show that coarse fishermen are opposed to hunting with hounds in the same proportion as the general public? The argument about fishermen is facetious and has no factual basis.
§ Mr. Robathan
I do not hunt but I occasionally fish. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I am not a keen fisherman. In an interesting speech, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) spoke about the science of the matter and finally dealt with its morality. Is it moral because you enjoy catching creatures with a hook in their mouths? That question must go hand in hand with whether it is moral to chase creatures. Perhaps you could explain that dichotomy.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)
Order. The hon. Gentleman uses the word you. Could he please use the correct terminology?
§ Mr. Salter
The debate is about the sport of hunting: it is not about fishing. Scientific data draw a clear distinction between the ability of fish and other cold-blooded creatures to feel pain and the reactions and the mechanisms that trigger pain and stress in warm-blooded mammals such as deer and foxes. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North nods assent; that gives me some comfort.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole spoke about the "glorious" demonstration. It is amusing to find Conservatives placing such reliance on a mass demonstration. Many Labour Members demonstrated in support of the miners. Did that stop the previous Administration destroying mining communities? It is interesting to note that a measure seems to be immoral if it affects a small number of jobs in a rural environment. Were not some of the previous Government's policies immoral, given the damage that they caused to employment in mining communities and elsewhere?
§ Mr. Gray
The point about the rally on 10 May is that it was by far the largest popular rally of any kind in the history of rallies. It was two or three times the size of the miners' rally and larger than the poll tax rally. It was the largest popular rally on any subject ever known in this country. That is why it was a significant expression of public opinion.
§ Mr. Salter
Perhaps my hon. Friend has not been on as many demonstrations as many of us on Labour Benches. I 846 suggest that he did not participate in demonstrations against the poll tax or, if I dare mention it in the new Labour climate, some of the well-attended demonstrations in support of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He is factually inaccurate. I welcome him to a future demonstration.
§ Mr. Fraser
It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to call us his hon. Friends. We have noted that with great gratitude. The Hyde park rally was attended by people from across the political spectrum and a Labour Baroness was a keynote speaker at the event. It was not partisan but an all-party matter. The hon. Gentleman should look at the facts.
§ Mr. Salter
I shall refer to Conservative Members who opposed the poll tax as hon. Friends—and can pray in aid many examples in that respect.
I shall return to the subject of the debate. I made hunting an issue in my election campaign. My constituency contains urban and rural areas with outlying villages. As a fisherman in Berkshire, I witnessed at first hand the brutality and depravity of a fox hunt kill. I have seen hunts dig out a fox that had been run to ground and throw it to a pack of hounds. I am now assured that such things do not happen, but I do not believe it.
I had the privilege of launching the campaign of my hon. Friend the Minister for Worcester in Reading last month and noted the interesting behaviour of the pro-hunting lobby, which engaged in heckling, jeering and jostling. However, that is the stuff of politics and I can handle it. There is an attempt to make the argument country versus town. I took up the challenge issued by the countryside movement, the pro-hunting lobby, to attend a fox hunt. I had seen hunts anyway but I was happy to accept the challenge. I am still waiting for an invitation. People do not want us to see what goes on at the end of a fox hunt. They do not want us to know how barbaric and out of place is fox hunting in modern Britain.
§ Mr. Salter
No, I shall not.
A gamekeeper from rural Berkshire signed our petition before 1 May. I said to him, "I am pleased to see a gamekeeper signing the petition. As a rural person whose job depends on the countryside, why do you support the campaign against fox hunting?" He said, "Martin, hunts will often protect areas for foxes to breed so that they have a quarry to hunt." That response drives a coach and horses through the argument that fox hunting has anything to do with conservation or with helping farmers.
§ Mr. Salter
No, because I am about to conclude.
The gamekeeper also said, "If you want to put down a fox you can shoot it. We are professionals who rarely miss and we know our job. That is the humane way to control foxes where they are pests." There is no scientific justification for the continuation of the sport of hunting with hounds. There are perfectly viable alternatives such as drag hunting. It is merely a question of satisfying the blood lust of a minority and it is time to call an end to it. I shall support the Bill on 28 November.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
The hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) says that he has never received an invitation to attend a fox hunt to see what happens. I invite him to join me on Saturday 8 November at the hunt of the Royal Artillery fox hounds on Salisbury plain. I shall be delighted to see that he follows the hunt in a Land-Rover to see precisely what goes on. I hope to see him on Saturday week at 11 o'clock at Shrewton Folly for that meet.
There are two sides to the debate. The first is why there should be fox hunting; the second, which is quite a distinct argument, is why we should not ban it. As they are entirely separate issues, I shall deal with them in turn. The first reason for hunting is its utility. Anyone who has owned a chicken run, as I have, and has seen it strewn with the bodies of headless chickens, or who has seen a fox gnawing at a recently born calf or at the cow, or has seen live lambs half eaten by a fox, will know what vermin they are. In that context, foxes are precisely the same as rats and should be dealt with in the same way. We think nothing of hitting a rat on the head with a shovel in the farmyard and we should have the same feeling about dealing similarly with a fox.
I welcome the speech made by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who concentrated on the scientific aspects of fox hunting. I shall counter his speech by giving some of my own scientific knowledge. For military reasons, in 1985 the Ministry of Defence banned fox hunting on Salisbury plain because it was felt that it was too dangerous to gallop across the impact area and risk being blown up. In 1988—just three years later—farmers around Salisbury plain unanimously petitioned the Ministry of Defence to reintroduce fox hunting on the impact area because of the effect of the ban on their cows, sheep and chickens. The Ministry heeded that petition and allowed fox hunting to recommence. That is the only scientific evidence that I am aware of as to what happens when fox hunting is banned. It has a significant effect on agriculture.
Fox hunting is the only selective and scientific way in which to cull this particular pest. To suggest that that can be done by shooting simply demonstrates a lack of knowledge about how foxes live. They are nocturnal animals and trying to shoot them by night is not, to say the least, an easy matter. They live in deep undergrowth and down holes, so it is by no means easy to shoot them in the same way as stags are in the north of Scotland.
§ Mr. Salter
The hon. Gentleman says that foxes come out only at night, but does fox hunting take place at night? I have not noticed headlights galloping across the countryside. When I go fishing, I see a lot of foxes, certainly in the first three hours in the morning. It is possible to hunt foxes using a rifle during the hours of daylight.
§ Mr. Gray
I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify that point. I look forward to showing the hon. Gentleman what we do on 8 November at Shrewton Folly when he joins me there.
Hounds are used precisely because foxes are to be found down holes and in deep undergrowth. When hounds are driven into deep undergrowth, the foxes are driven out. The hon. Gentleman demonstrates his lack of knowledge of what fox hunting is all about.
848 I was interested to see this week that the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) now accepts that hounds are needed to flush out foxes and that he is talking about changing his private Member's Bill so that selected gangs of hounds will be used in one way or another to flush foxes out of undergrowth. He has changed his perspective on the way in which foxes can be killed.
In my first point—utility—I include mink hounds. Mink is an appalling pest in my constituency. It cannot be killed in any reasonable way apart from by the use of hounds. Here, I might get myself into trouble with the British Field Sports Society by going some way towards agreeing with the hon. Gentleman on the subject of stag hunting. I am not entirely convinced that the most efficient way of culling deer is by using hounds, but I await further scientific evidence on that point. As a Scot from the north of Scotland, where stag are culled perfectly adequately using rifles, I am not convinced that using hounds is the best method of culling stag. However, hounds are essential for culling mink and foxes.
My second point concerns the landscape. There is any amount of evidence that the English landscape is significantly formed by field sports in general. The New Scientist says:hedgerow and thickets … would disappear if hunting were banned.That is powerful evidence of the significant influence of fox hunting on the landscape.
My constituency has three packs of fox hounds—the VWH, the Beaufort and the Avon Vale—and we have at least one, perhaps two, beagle packs and a mink pack. The people who follow those packs make a huge contribution to the countryside in north Wiltshire. The place would not be the same without hunting.
The third reason for allowing fox hunting was referred to eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser): the economic benefit to the countryside. In my constituency, a significant number of people are employed as grooms, farriers and manufacturers of hunting kit, saddlery and so on. An enormous amount of money is pumped into north Wiltshire by commodity brokers and others who choose to live in London but hunt in my constituency. One need only visit the village of Sherston in my constituency to discover that hunting is almost certainly the most significant industry in that area.
Nationally, country sports generate 60,000 jobs. I have no reason to doubt that figure. The banning of fox hunting would have a huge impact on the United Kingdom's economy. Fox hunting contributes £3.8 billion to the economy.
§ Ms Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire)
I represent a rural constituency some 40 miles from top to bottom and almost as wide and I want to dispel some of the misinformation that has been given about employment. Conservative Members insist that the banning of fox hunting would have an impact on the rural economy, but a letter from a union representing employees in country areas dispels pro-hunters' claim that 160,000 people are directly or indirectly employed in field sports. It says that Department for Education and Employment figures for 1995 indicate that 116,000 people work full and part-time in a range of sporting activities, including football clubs, swimming pools and sports 849 arenas. One can only assume that those figures have been taken into account. The letter goes on to say that members of rural trade unions have come out firmly—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. When I am on my feet, the hon. Lady must resume her seat. The hon. Lady is a new Member, but interventions must be brief and hers was too long.
§ Mr. Gray
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her useful, if not particularly well-informed, contribution to my speech.
I rest my case on the scientific evidence in the Cobham report. It concludes that country sports generate 60,160 full-time jobs and provide indirect, full-time employment to a further 30,809 people. The use of horses for hunting generates 9,000 jobs to the riding industry, 3,000 grooms' jobs in private establishments and 910 jobs in hunt service. Those figures are well established, but they are easily verifiable in a variety of ways.
In my constituency—I can speak with any degree of knowledge only about my constituency—field sports make a significant contribution. The suggestion that their loss could be made up by a switch to drag hunting simply demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what fox hunting is all about. Drag hunting is an artificial sport that takes place in certain artificially produced areas and there is no possibility that farmers in my constituency would allow the 500 or 600 riders and followers we often see on a Saturday meet with the Beaufort to cross their land simply for fun. Farmers allow that to happen because they know the real benefit of fox hunting to their farms.
Those arguments go to why we should allow fox hunting but, almost as important, particularly under this new Government of freedom, allowing people to do what they wish—or so they say—is the argument for not banning it. In a sense, those are two different things. The libertarian argument is powerful. The temptation of most Governments is to legislate to allow the majority to do what they wish to do, but the important thing about being a socialist—I suspect that many Labour Members believe themselves still to be socialists—is looking after the minority; those people who are not necessarily represented by the majority. Those who take part in field sports are that minority and, as we saw on 10 July, a significant minority.
§ Mr. Martlew
In my area of Cumberland, as it was, cock fighting used to be very popular. Unfortunately, we used to have badger baiting as well. The same arguments that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward in favour of fox hunting could have been used in favour of cock fighting and badger baiting. What is the difference?
§ Mr. Gray
There is a significant difference between the ancient sports of fox hunting and badger baiting. First, many fewer people took part in badger baiting. We can now demonstrate that a significant number of people—I think I am right in saying 600,000—take part in field sports of all kinds. If one cannot prove that such sports are necessarily cruel, wishing to ban them has nothing to do with animal welfare or the economy, but is the result of class hatred and the failure to understand agriculture and the countryside.
I come finally to the way in which the Bill to be introduced on 28 November would undermine the fabric of the English countryside—the fabric of all that is 850 England. Hunting and shooting—and, indeed, fishing—are an integral part of the countryside in areas such as mine. They have been there for 1,000 years. A significant number—a majority—of the people there take part in them or support them. Such sports are a significant part of life in north Wiltshire, and Labour Members who would do away with them are motivated more by one type or another of class hatred and by political correctness than by an understanding of the countryside. As evidence of those motivations, even the hon. Member for Worcester has started to agree that it is perhaps necessary for hounds to flush foxes out of their covers. Moreover, Labour Members have started to agree that foot packs in the north of England may have to traverse hillsides.
The only interesting aspect of those two methods of flushing out foxes is that they are not fun. It is certainly right, however, to acknowledge that fox hunting is fun and that it is a great sport. Many of those who are opposed to fox hunting seem to be saying, "We do not believe that hunting hurts animals and we do not dislike the countryside, but we dislike those whom we perceive as being different from us having fun. If we can do away with their fun and their sport and have a go at those whom we perceive as red-coated, pompous colonels galloping round the countryside, it will somehow appeal to our entirely urban constituents. The people who voted for us do not like that sort of thing, whereas soppy sentimentality about the life of a fox does appeal to them."
Such a political instinct is unworthy and I very much hope that the House will stamp on its head in future debates the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill.
§ Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on his speech, which tried to get away from many of the traditions of this debate—in which people seem already to have reached their conclusions and then hunt for arguments to support them.
As a new hon. Member for a very rural constituency, I know that it is a gross caricature to describe discussion and debate in my constituency as occurring between town and country. As their new hon. Member, ex-hunters have written to me urging my support for a hunting ban, and farmers and agricultural workers have said that, on balance, they also support a ban. I have also received letters inviting me to attend a hunt—which I did—so that I could hear opposing views from other constituents.
Too often the hunting debate is distorted by caricaturing the extremes of the argument. I should like to make it clear that I do not think that my constituents who participate in and support hunting are a bloodthirsty lot, wishing to inflict cruelty in the countryside and gaining great pleasure in doing so. In the hours that I could spare to attend a hunt in my constituency, no fox was sighted and the event seemed to be much more of a social occasion than one organised to kill an animal. There was considerable enjoyment, however, for those who met socially and enjoyed some exercise.
People participating in that hunt were also not from any one economic class. Although there were members of the landed gentry, if they will excuse me for so labelling them, there were also agricultural workers who were there to have a bit of fun. Therefore, let us please—at least in the House—debate the matter without caricaturing all those on the other side of the argument as evil people.
851 As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North said, we have a responsibility to identify the key facts in trying to determine where the argument should lead. Although I have tried in discussions with my constituents to maintain as neutral a position as possible and to listen to both sides, I have discovered that—probably because of the depth of their emotional commitment, which is based largely on tradition and the life style to which they are accustomed—there are conflicting arguments among not those most keen for abolition but those who support the continuation of hunting. I have had to tell them that they cannot have the argument every way.
At the hunt that I attended, some people made it very clear that it would be a very bad day for foxes if a ban were imposed, because farmers would quickly shoot the lot and there would be no foxes left to hunt. They said that shooting foxes would be much more efficient than the relatively inefficient process of catching foxes with hounds, and that there would soon be no more foxes in my part of Norfolk. Conversely, two or three metres further on, I was approached by other hunt supporters who said that hunts were not only essential but the only reasonable way in which foxes can be properly controlled. They said that shooting would never control foxes. The balance of the argument must therefore rest on the side of those who say, as the scientific evidence seems to indicate, that control of the fox population is a secondary or tertiary consideration to that of the intent of the hunt.
It is very difficult to understand entirely the employment argument, and I suspect that there has been a mite of exaggeration in the case that has been made. The House, however, has a responsibility not simply to assume that there is no validity in an argument. I suspect that a hunting ban will cause some negative effects on employment. Those who are inclined to support the measure must take account of that fact, and I shall certainly attempt to ensure that the House considers it.
It seems a little misplaced, however, to place such emphasis on the effects of a hunting ban on employment when one considers the effects of other factors on countryside employment. In the 28 years that I have been in Norfolk, the number of people employed on a typical large estate has dropped by almost a factor of 10, and that has been the real change in countryside employment. There were once 28 or more employed on large estates, but now, because of modem farming techniques, only three or four are employed on such estates. I am much more anxious for the House and the Government to address employment issues in the rural economy by ensuring, for example, that there is a decent road structure for commerce.
Although I suspect that there will be some negative effects of a hunting ban, they are not sufficiently large to influence our judgment on the main issue, which we will eventually be debating. There should be more neutral analysis of the figures to determine the likely effects of a ban on the rural economy.
It is very difficult to understand the depth of feeling against drag hunting—although I have noted and respect the conclusion of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has urged me to support a hunting ban. I have expressed those objections to hunting supporters in my constituency, but I was unconvinced by 852 their response. Drag hunts have many of the social benefits that hunting supporters claim for countryside sports such as fox hunting.
§ Dr. Turner
The honest answer is that I am not completely certain. I do not have sufficient scientific evidence. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North, having been trained as a scientist, I am keen to have some facts in front of me before jumping to conclusions. I believe that, as on many occasions, we shall have to make up our minds with only part of the evidence before us.
On drag hunting, if it provides the sport and the exercise and if the agricultural community treasures the nature of the countryside in the way that it says, why not do it? That is the key question that will influence my vote on hunting. I hope that we shall be able to conduct this debate while recognising that the arguments are often shades of grey and, as a scientist and engineer, I am used to that. We cannot paint everything in stark black and white. Life is never so simple. Nature is cruel and, often, so is man. We have a responsibility in the House to debate this issue and to reach the best possible conclusion on the evidence before us. In the spirit of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North, I hope that we shall try to base our conclusions on the facts.
§ 12.2 pm
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
I wish to declare a lack of interest as I do not hunt. I have been beagling a few times and I have attended meets, but I do not hunt and hardly ever ride—I can just about stay on a horse. Therefore, I am not arguing from a personal viewpoint.
The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) made an interesting speech and his scientific analysis was interesting. However, when it came down to it, he said that we have to determine the moral issue of whether it is right to hunt foxes. I believe that he was wrong to say that reports have said that there are insignificant losses of domestic livestock to foxes. The number may be insignificant in the huge flock of hens that we have in this country, many of which live in unpleasant conditions inside buildings, but I am keen to encourage free-range hens and, of course, it is such hens that are nobbled by foxes. If a farmer has 100 hens in a free-range pen and a fox takes 20 of them, that is significant to that individual. I do not blame the fox. We should not make a moral judgment on a fox's determination to kill hens because that is its nature. However, it is at variance with what we would want if we were farmers.
Foxes need to be controlled and almost everybody who has taken part in the debate has agreed with that. We have to determine how to do that. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) who, sadly, is no longer in the Chamber, talked about shooting. I have probably fired as many rounds of rifle ammunition as anybody in the House during my 15 years in the Army and some of those were fired at deer and other animals. Regrettably, it is not easy and one is bound to wound foxes if one tries to shoot them. The only time I saw a fox shot by a farmer was when he had snared it beforehand. It may have been in a 853 gin trap as I was about 10 at the time. He left the fox overnight and then went back to shoot it. That is not very pleasant. Anybody trying to shoot foxes on the loose is bound to wound some. That is every bit as cruel as hunting with hounds.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) mentioned drag hunting. I have never been on a drag hunt but I am told that it is fast and furious and even more dangerous than hunting. I believe that many people who hunt must be a little bit strange because I know too many of them who have broken their necks, backs or collar bones while hunting. My point is that if they wish to hunt and take part in something that contributes—only contributes—to pest control, it is strange that so many hon. Members should try to determine their moral judgment and stop them doing so, whether it be for scientific or for other reasons.
We should address many things if we are looking at animal rights and welfare. What about halal butchery? I have never seen it, but I believe that it is pretty unpleasant. We do not hear much about that because it might be considered politically incorrect to mention it. Anybody who has been to an abattoir, and I have, will know how unpleasant that is. I am not a vegetarian, but I believe that animals should be killed as cleanly and humanely as possible, causing the least possible fear.
This is an issue of morality and, as the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk said, there are arguments on both sides. However, I do not believe that hon. Members should wish to dictate to those who want to take part in a perfectly harmless occupation which plays a part in pest control. We should not say that they cannot do that. I am astonished at the number of people who say, "You will not do this because we do not wish to do it." I do not wish to hunt, but I defend the right of those who do. The House is going down the wrong road if it is about to ban fox hunting.
§ 12.6 pm
§ Ms Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire)
I should like to return to a point that I spent too long mentioning in an earlier intervention. I am one of the sponsors of the private Member's Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) and, as I have said, I am not an urban Member as I represent a large rural constituency. It is essential that any debate of this nature must be carried out objectively. In that sense, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who has endeavoured to achieve that.
It is unfortunate that it is the pro-hunting lobby on the Conservative Benches who seem to be raising the issue of emotion and refusing to debate objectively. That has been shown by the fact that this morning we have heard about the conservation of hedgerows, pest control and the need to maintain foxes and to conserve the countryside as well as the need to get rid of foxes because they are a pest to fanners. Conservative Members need to make up their minds about their arguments.
This is not an emotional issue. I am not emotional about a fox because it is a little red animal with a bushy tail that looks pretty. If it is a pest, the onus is on us to look for humane ways of controlling it. That is the important issue and it was emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North. The association representing rural workers has made it clear that it is rural workers who have determined the policy of opposition to hunting with hounds. That is a vital point.
854 I have met many people in my constituency who took part in the countryside rally. It was not a rally about hunting. It demonstrated the despair felt by people who live in rural communities after the former Government's policies over the past two decades. There was a misconception among many people at that rally that a Labour Government would threaten shooting and fishing. That is untrue.
§ Mr. Fraser
Will the hon. Lady confirm that the Labour party is hanging the entire issue of the countryside on fox hunting? That appears to be the case from the contribution made by the hon. Lady and other Labour Members.
§ Ms Lawrence
I reiterate the fact that the Labour party now represents 170 rural constituencies, which is more than the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives put together. The Labour party is the party of the countryside.
I want to talk about the rural economy. There is dissatisfaction among people who live in the countryside about the previous Government's policies. I can give an example from my constituency. In 1984, the gross domestic product of my constituency was 84 per cent. of the United Kingdom national average. In 1994, after 10 years under the Conservative Government, it had fallen "to 71 per cent. of that average. That reflects the massive concerns that are felt in rural areas. The Labour Government's environmental and economic policies will improve matters, but not by seeking to defend the indefensible as Conservative Members have tried to do today.
§ 12.9 pm
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate and on the measured way in which he approached such a controversial issue. It is somewhat ironic that on the first occasion when 1 am required to make a speech from the Dispatch Box—I never had the opportunity to make one from the Government Bench, but one lives in hope and ambition—I find that we are addressing the emotive issue of fox hunting.
It is especially ironic because on the first occasion when I took part in a live broadcast during the 1987 general election, I participated in a Tyne Tees Television question time that was broadcast live in Yorkshire and a Conservative representative asked a question about hunting. I have had to address the issue on many occasions and I am the first to accept that it will not go away.
As the hon. Member for Norwich, North made clear, the question that we have been asked to address today does not relate to the merits or otherwise of the Bill that has been tabled by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), which we will doubtless scrutinise at considerable length in due course, but whether the world of science can inform our debate. That was the hon. Gentleman's key point.
I represent a huge rural constituency, and when I was a Government Back Bencher I always made my views about hunting absolutely clear. There are now seven hunts in Ryedale; there used to be nine, but two have moved to the Vale of York. There is no question but that hunting has a role to play within the community of Ryedale, where 855 it is well supported; equally, however, many people take a contrary view. I do not hunt and I have no wish to do so, and nor do I shoot, but we must consider extremely carefully whether we legislate to take away the individual's right to choose to do so. I have always defended that right and I do not believe that there are any grounds thus far to make me change that opinion.
The hon. Member for Norwich, North made a strong case for scientific research to be taken into account when deciding whether or not hunting with dogs should be permitted, and, perhaps more importantly, the extent to which it might be better regulated. My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who is also on the Opposition Front Bench, and I both thought, however, that although the hon. Gentleman made a strong case for the role of research, it did not follow that its conclusions suggested that one could make a decision on whether hunting should be banned or more widely restricted. I thought that the hon. Gentleman made a compelling case for the value of more wide-ranging research to be carried out in the future.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the research conducted by MacDonald and Bateson, which I understand was narrowly focused. We need research to be undertaken to assess the potential for pain and cruelty to be inflicted. It should also consider the alternatives to fox hunting to which one or two hon. Members have referred, for example, snaring, shooting and gassing. The results of those practices are indiscriminate and have significant potential to cause pain and suffering.
I suspect that most, if not all, hon. Members have received a brief from the Country Landowners Association. It is interesting that it concludes by calling for more research to be carried out. It suggests that public confidence in the proper regulation of hunting would be enhanced if such research was initiated and co-ordinated by an independent authority. It might then make recommendations for the better supervision and regulation of hunting and consider complaints of breaches of codes of conduct. I am sure that we will want to discuss such issues on more than one occasion in the future.
Today we have been asked to consider the key proposition of whether research can inform our debate on hunting. I believe that it does, and I believe that the hon. Member for Norwich, North made that clear. I believe, however, that the evidence thus far is inconclusive and is not sufficiently wide ranging to justify the House deciding that there should be a complete ban on hunting with dogs.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on securing the debate. His speech on such an emotive subject was full of serious points based on a review of the available scientific literature and research. Of course, he is extremely well qualified to make such a speech given his expertise, understanding and the amount of reading that he has done on the subject. I also congratulate him on the thoughtful manner in which he conducted hon. Members through some of the evidence. His speech was in the best traditions of the House and I am sure that the House will look forward to further speeches from him on the subject.
856 I welcome the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) to the Opposition Dispatch Box—as he rightly pointed out—and long may he remain there. In the few minutes available to him, he made it clear that he has a particular view, but he, too, welcomed the tone of my hon. Friend's speech and the way in which the debate has been conducted.
My hon. Friend referred to the important scientific research contained in the MacDonald and Bateson reports. Given that he dealt with them so fairly and fully, and given the time available, I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not repeat their findings. Today's debate, although inflamed at times, has been marked by some useful and interesting contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber.
The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) essentially made a constituency speech in which he spoke of the impact that a ban on hunting would have in his area. He rightly described the economic consequences for the rural economy and specifically the support industries, agriculture and the countryside. I thought that his conclusion was rather apocalyptic, but that will be either proven or disproved by events that may take place.
There was a difference of emphasis, if not of opinion, between the hon. Members for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and for Mid-Dorset and North Poole on the issue of how many jobs may be lost if the legislation proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) is put on the statute book. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole suggested that about 9,000 jobs would be lost and the hon. Member for North Wiltshire said that he thought that 60,000 jobs would be lost.
§ Mr. Howarth
I want to say a little more, which may have an influence on the hon. Gentleman's intervention, but then I will give way. I believe that he quoted the report produced by Mr. Ralph Cobham. The House should be aware that that report was commissioned by the countryside movement. The group has a particular point of view and those statistics might reflect that.
§ Mr. Gray
The figures quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mr. Fraser) referred to those jobs that are specifically attached to the sport of fox hunting. The figures I quoted include, for example, farriers, grooms, people who make saddles and look after horses, and so on. That explains the difference between the two figures.
§ Mr. Howarth
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I suspect that, even making allowances for that qualification, the figure of 60,000 jobs is probably on the high side. Nevertheless, whichever way we cut it, if legislative changes occur, there will be an impact on the rural economy. I do not know the scale of that impact—no one does—but if a current activity is stopped, some businesses and jobs will be affected in some way.
We had an interesting discussion about the "thin end of the wedge" argument in respect of angling and shooting. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading. West (Mr. Salter) confessed to being an angler and, in the spirit 857 of confession being good for the soul, let me confess that, for most of my life since the age of about 10, I too have been an angler. In defence I should say that when asked by a journalist whether, in view of reports on the subject, she thought that her husband's fishing was cruel, my wife responded, "Not in his case, because he rarely catches anything." I suspect that many hon. Members know that feeling well. There is a world of difference between angling and various sorts of hunting. I am not coming down on one side or the other, but it must be acknowledged that there are differences in approach and in the way the sports are perceived. Any comparison is therefore unfair, although there are some points at which they meet and they are part of the same debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West spoke about the scale of various demonstrations, but I am not sure whether that gives a measure of anything these days. That underlines the point my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North made about how we should be influenced not by who shouts the loudest, but by the evidence available—especially that from the scientific world—which we should coolly analyse before drawing our conclusions.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire brought a great deal of personal experience to the debate, both from his constituency viewpoint and from his own participation. In many respects, it is worth listening to those who have such experience; however, he indulged in a little hyperbole towards the end of his speech. I am sure that that will make good copy in his local newspaper, but it added little to the debate. We have to consider these matters soberly and although the hon. Gentleman raised some points of interest, some of his comments were more appropriate for audiences other than the House.
The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) made an interesting and brief contribution about the nature of the fox and about people's freedom to engage in various activities. The scale is debatable, but the fact that foxes are by nature predatory and that they prey on some types of farm animal, especially chickens, is not disputed. That there is a pest element to the activities of the fox has to be conceded.
In the time left, I want to refer to recent debate—by which I mean in the past 40 years or so—and to reports that may or may not have been covered today. The last significant parliamentary report was the report of the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals, which was presented to Parliament in 1951. Known as the Scott-Henderson report, it looked into the practices and activities that might involve cruelty to wild animals and concluded that hunting with hounds was no more cruel than any other form of pest control.
858 The National Trust commissioned Professor Savage's working party report, published in 1993, which studied the conservation and management of red deer and which has been mentioned today. That report did not focus on the animal welfare aspects of that form of hunting. In September 1996, the countryside movement commissioned a review of the findings of the Scott-Henderson report headed by Mr. Richard Phelps, a retired Treasury official. He recommended a new independent authority to initiate research into hunting and to regulate and supervise the practice. He argued that the authority should be self-regulatory and appointed on a basis similar to the Press Commission. That brings us the Bateson report, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North, and other more recent research.
I should now say a few words about the Government's position on these issues. The Government's position on the issue of hunting with hounds is clear: we neither support nor oppose hunting with hounds—we take a neutral position. However, in our manifesto we gave a commitment to allow a free vote on whether to ban hunting. It is our intention to deliver that free vote when the opportunity to do so is presented by the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester. That Bill would ban hunting with hounds and it would outlaw the hunting of deer, fox, hare and mink. It is due to be considered for Second Reading on 28 November and if it secures a Second Reading members of the parliamentary Labour party—including Ministers—will have a free vote.
It will be for Parliament to consider the question of a ban on hunting. There are complex issues associated with any such ban, including the effects on the rural economy, pest control and a range of other rural and agricultural concerns, which have all been discussed in today's debate. The scientific evidence contained in the Bateson report will no doubt be one of a number of factors that will inform the debate and help hon. Members to arrive at their own conclusion.
The assessment of the report and the conclusions drawn by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North will be a valuable addition to the debate. Most important, the manner in which he introduced today's debate—cool, dispassionate and analytical, looking at the scientific evidence, bringing it to bear and weighing one argument against another—is a good way for Parliament to proceed on this subject. If we can keep that sort of debate going over the coming months, the public will appreciate the House far better and we will have performed a valuable service in respect of both animal welfare and the wider community.